A Genealogy of Terror: An Interview with Ronald Schechter

***This interview is a part of our “Featured Books” series.***

In A Genealogy of Terror in Eighteenth-Century France, Ronald Schechter deconstructs the  history of “terror.” Schechter focuses on the concept’s evolution and variant meanings over the course of the long-eighteenth century in order to complicate our modern, post-9/11 understandings of the term, but also to make a critical contribution to the history of the French Revolution — and specifically to the Reign of Terror. What follows is an interview I conducted with Schechter on his book.


Bryan Banks (BB): What inspired you to research and write a book on the genealogy of terror?

Ronald Schechter (RS): I began thinking about this topic in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and in this midst of a pervasive discourse of a “war on terror.” The public discussion was disturbingly exoticizing terror, making it appear to be an import from a strange and scary “east” (or, more precisely, “middle east”) rather than considering that it might have a long history in the western world. As a student of the French Revolution I knew that, at least for a brief period in French history, the word “terror” had had positive connotations, and that the language of terror had justified violence against thousands of people deemed enemies of the nation. As a historian I found it unlikely that such a powerful phenomenon could have come ex nihilo, but I didn’t know how deep its roots were. I was surprised to see that no one had written an intellectual (or conceptual) history of terror, but the prospect of doing so, if you’ll excuse the pun, terrified me. So I put the book project on the back burner for several years. Then in 2008-9 I had the opportunity to be a fellow at the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton. (The theme for the year was “fear.”) At that time I thought I could write a synoptic history of terror in the West, in other words, to do for terror what Darrin McMahon had done for “happiness.” Gradually it became clear to me that someone ought to make that attempt, but that I was not that someone. I could not manage the plethora of sources that such a project would require me to unearth and analyze, so I decided to focus on terror in eighteenth-century France. This would enable me, if nothing else, to explain why the French revolutionaries so enthusiastically latched onto “terror” as a rallying cry, and perhaps also to help explain why the policies of the Terror appealed to so many people. At the same time, the story of terror in eighteenth-century France could have a larger significance by serving as a case study in western attitudes toward terror.

BB: You open your book with the great line: “The French Revolution gave terror a bad name.” Can you tell us a little more about those positive connotations of “terror,” that as you argue, drew the revolutionaries to it?

RS: For a very long time “terror” had positive connotations. We can see this in multiple literatures. In the Bible, which of course was still widely read in eighteenth-century France, God shows his power and majesty by bringing terror to human beings, mainly those who disobey him but sometimes even those who are devoted to him. In political writings, especially what has been called acclamatory literature, monarchs acquire the godlike quality of spreading terror, and one of the most popular ways of praising a king was to call him “the terror of his enemies.” In jurisprudence there was no disputing that “the terror of the law” was effective in deterring crime. (The very word “deter” bears a trace of the Latin verb terrere, meaning to terrify.) Even opponents of the death penalty argued that execution was not bad policy because it spread terror, but precisely because it did not spread terror. Penal reformers believed that other punishments, such as hard labor, would provoke more terror in criminals or would-be criminals than executions that were little more than popular spectacles. Positive portrayals of terror appeared in other discourses as well. Theater reviews typically praised tragedies that provoked terror in audiences. Following Edmund Burke, whose writings on the sublime were translated into French, aesthetic theorists and art critics made terror a precondition of the sublime in art and nature. Finally, medical writers claimed that terror could cure many different ills, including malaria, rabies, gout and epilepsy. Given this linguistic context, one can see why revolutionaries adopted the word “terror” when looking for a rallying cry.

BB: I admire how you intertwine theory and history and one interesting way you do this is by drawing on William Reddy’s concept of the “emotive” and “emotional regimes” to put seventeenth and eighteenth-century medical treatises in dialogue with legal documents and even art criticism. Did you face any unforeseen or interesting obstacles in making emotion a central part of this intellectual history?

RS: The obstacles weren’t unforeseen, but they were interesting.  I knew that ascribing emotions to historical characters would be difficult, and probably controversial, but I didn’t think it would be any more speculative than claiming to find ideas in these same characters.  In any case historians have long detected emotions in their subjects.  It didn’t take an “emotional turn” for them to do so.  As Peter Gay put it in Freud for Historians (1985), “psychology is the historian’s unacknowledged principal aide.” (p. 6)  We want to know what people in the past felt, just as we want to know what they thought.  With the help of psychological research, William Reddy has shown us that the line between thinking and feeling is blurry, if at all discernible. 

BB: You made the interesting choice to end your book with its historiographical significance, whereas most think about their book projects as historiographically top-heavy. Why did you make this decision?

RS: I learned this trick from my colleague Melvin Ely, a U.S. historian at William and Mary.  In his Israel on the Appomattox (2004), which he wrote for a broad audience, he put his historiographical arguments at the end.  He anticipated that many if not most readers would have little interest in historians’ professional squabbling and see the final chapter as optional, though he knew that his academic colleagues would fault him if he left the arguments out altogether.  I don’t know how many non-professional readers I will have.  The primacy of the word “terror” in contemporary discourse might lead some general readers to pick up my book, and I don’t want to put them off by foregrounding the historiographical debates.

General reader or not. Check out Ronald Schechter’s A Genealogy of Terror in Eighteenth-Century France!


Title image: Brissot et 20 de ses complices à la guillotine : le 10 brumaire de l’an 2.eme de la République française une et indivisible, Brissot et 20 de ses complices subirent leur jugement sur la place de la Révolution estampe, 1793.

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